In my last post, I outlined why the phrase ‘work-life balance’ can be unhelpful and even misleading. If you’re short on time, I propose that it’s not about work versus life, the challenge never ends and there’s really no such thing as ‘balance’.
In case you found the piece a bit gloomy, I’m here to brighten your day with a few suggestions. As I’m frequently heard saying on our podcast, there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution in the world of psychology. So what follows isn’t a list of rules, but some thoughts on how you can think about how your professional and personal lives integrate, while making some changes in a valued direction.
If improving your ‘work-life balance’ has been on your mind, you can identify a way forward by following these steps:
1. Consider the multiple roles you occupy in your own life
Move away from the over-simplistic ‘work vs life’ perspective and make a list of all the varied roles you fill throughout your day, week and month. Be creative and don’t just think of the formal ones. You may be someone’s parent, but also someone’s child. You’re a friend, a colleague, maybe a mentor or coach. Maybe a technical specialist. You probably have some social, community and hobby roles too.
Get them out of your head and onto a piece of paper.
2. Review your resources
We all have a limited amount of time, attention and energy to invest in our various roles every day. Have a look at how you’re investing these resources across your roles right now. This will give you a picture of the status quo and illustrate what your typical week (for example) looks like.
One way to do this is to represent the roles as different sized circles on paper. The different sizes could represent time, attention or energy. Looking at your roles though each of these ‘lenses’ can be quite revealing.
For many of us, knowing exactly where our time goes can be tricky. If this is the case, track your time for a week or two to get a clearer picture. It may well be quite different from what’s in your calendar or your memory!
It’s not all about time, though. Think also about where your energy and attention go. Roles that don’t take up a huge amount of time may in fact require a lot of attention and energy.
3. Think about what’s important to you
Yes, we’re back to values. One of the root causes of discomfort with how we’re living our working lives is an unintentional drift from being the person we most want to be. We forget what’s really important to us and get into a routine that’s more about habit and auto-pilot.
Take some time to consider what values are important to you and then the extent to which you are actually living these values on a regular basis. Identify which of your roles you associate with those values and how much you are engaged with those roles.
Now you’ll have a list of life roles and the values you associate with each. Don’t worry if you realise you’re not putting your values into practice the way you’d like. This doesn’t make you a ‘bad person’, just someone who’s found themselves caught up with a habit of ‘busyness’ and potentially trying to do too much.
4. Revisit those commitments
Now that you’re clearer on what’s really important to you, take another look at your roles, but this time represent them on paper as you’d like them to be. Some roles be now be represented by smaller circles, some by larger ones. This may because you want to dedicate less time to some areas of your life and invest it in others. Or because you realise some require more of your attention and energy.
The disconnect between how you’re living and how you’d like to live can be quite an eye-opening experience. But don’t panic – you’re not expected to turn things around in one go. The difference you see in front of you simply highlights areas where you could make some changes.
5. Clarify your priorities for change
In order to make changes, you need to be clear on your priorities. Establishing clear priorities will inevitably involve sacrifice, which can also feel uncomfortable. Once you realise you ‘can’t do it all’, you can decide that you will absolutely do and – more importantly – what you’re going to stop doing.
Consider the control you have over these roles (e.g. start and finish time at work versus activities you volunteer to undertake) and think about what’s realistic for you, in your context. Don’t take your cue from blog posts about the daily routines of Silicon Valley billionaires, for example!
You might identify changes within a role. For example, you may feel very fulfilled mentoring more junior colleagues but realise that you’re spending next to no time actually doing this. Similarly, you may realise that some of your travel to meetings is more draining than useful – and some could be accomplished by phone or video-conference.
It could also be that you decide to exit one of your roles completely and reinvest the time/energy elsewhere. Perhaps you’ve over-committed and realise that now you’re too stretched. Maybe one of your life’s roles has been neglected for some time and you want to reinvigorate it. This is often the case with hobbies.
There’s no single recipe for success here, except that you consider your own context and what’s important to you.
6. Avoid epic change!
A series of small steps in the right direction – in line with your values and your priorities – can make a world of difference. Switching off your phone to eat with your loved ones. Using your commute home to listen to a language course. Taking time to have a coffee with a colleague. Checking in with a friend by text while you’re having your lunch.
‘Big Bang’ change rarely sticks, so don’t try to reinvent yourself overnight. Smaller changes can be implemented without much fuss and reviewed for the impact they’re having on your life.
Indeed, small changes that are clearly aligned with your values and priorities can have an incredibly positive impact on this whole area of our lives. It’s what they represent that’s key.
So in summary:
- Get specific with your life’s roles and how you’re investing in each
- Clarify what’s really important to you
- Identify how you’d like to invest in your roles
- Prioritise the small changes within your control
- Focus on your own journey